What makes a citizen

What it takes to become a Canadian citizen is a question that has been fueling a few conversations in recent weeks — both inside and outside neighbourhoods with strong immigrant constituencies, like Crescent Town, and Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Park.

There have been suggestions that fewer immigrants are choosing to officially become Canadian due to the rigours of the citizenship test — and that’s left some to wonder: Is something wrong with that test?

Well, for starters, we’re asking the wrong questions. Or asking them in the wrong way.

For instance, even someone born and raised in Canada who has spoken English all of his or her life could have trouble processing double negatives in a sentence. Mentally translating two negatives into a positive is a bit of an intellectual flourish that confuses some. A journalist who has taken some practice tests might not go so far as to accuse the test makers of trickery — but there are surely some linguistic gymnastics afoot.

Immigrants less exposed to English in their home countries are at a disadvantage. The way the questions and answers are framed show a bias toward a high-level proficiency in English that favours immigrants from one part of the world over another. It’s also a fundamentally difficult framework for people who just don’t do well in traditional test situations.

The difficulty of the test and the mark required for passing was increased five years ago, and many have said that’s a good thing…. After all, they say, becoming a Canadian shouldn’t be easy. But, of course, there’s a flaw in that argument. It was easy for so many of us. We were simply born here.

Perhaps the time has come to shift the onus from becoming a Canadian to being a Canadian.

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has said that “citizenship is not a right; it’s a privilege,” but it’s also Canada’s privilege to have immigrants call it home. They bring expertise, ingenuity, tenacity and diversity to our Canadian landscape. If only the citizenship process could take account of that.

Isn’t it better to measure a citizen not by how well they remember the past but how they conceive the future?

Last year, there were published reports indicating that the longer an immigrant waits to take the test, the less likely they are to pass. If a person who’s lived in Canada for five years fails the test, we have to wonder: What part of their life if most valuable to Canada?

If more permanent residents are opting out of becoming citizens because of systemic barriers, we are poorer for it. That means fewer Canadians invested in making this country’s future and engaged in the daily rigours to make it better.